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Back in 2011, a research study on parole hearings looked at more than 1,100 judicial rulings over a 10-month period. Researchers found that prisoners with court appearances early in the morning were granted parole about 70% of the time, while those toward the end of the day had less than a 10% chance of getting approved for parole.
Why? Because every subsequent parole decision depleted judges’ mental energy, and by the end of the day, they were more likely to reject parole. As the New York Times put it, researchers also found that the judges harbored no ill intent for the prisoners; they just ran out of the mental energy to make difficult decisions.
Although a CEO’s daily responsibilities vary from these judges’, it’s not uncommon for leaders to experience decision fatigue in the business world as well. If you quickly search for an image of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, for example, you’ll likely see them dressed in a simple sweater or unassuming t-shirt. From my perspective, the reason for this is that people of their stature have to make highly impactful and complex decisions on a daily basis, so they choose not to waste their mental energy on choices about what to wear.
What is decision fatigue?
Imagine your mental energy as a bowl of water that’s filled to the brim at the start of each day. Every choice you make costs a certain volume of water to disappear that’s commensurate to the gravity of the decision. The decision to pick your outfit takes a spoonful, but the decision you make at an important office meeting costs a quarter of the bowl. The emptier the bowl, the more difficult it can be for you to make decisions.
Decision fatigue might be present when you impulsively buy that sugary candy at the end of a choice-filled day or when you collapse on your couch after a long workday but cannot seem to decide which new show to watch.
What can you do today to avoid it?
Fortunately, there are some decisive (pun intended) steps you can take right away to deal with decision fatigue.
1. Recognize when you’re fatigued. While this might sound obvious, spotting when you’re experiencing decision fatigue is an effective first step at mitigating it. Signs that you’re in a fatigued state of mind when faced with a decision could include wanting to make an impulse decision or refraining from choosing at all and procrastinating.
So, next time you’re about to make that hasty hire or dreading the thought of starting on that report, you know what the cause might be. And when you’re experiencing these feelings, I’ve found it can be helpful to take a quick break that won’t require you to make any decisions, take a short nap or have a snack.
2. Develop a routine. Creating habits and fixed schedules for everyday tasks can go a long way in saving up that mental juice. Follow a cyclic morning routine, for example, that covers simple tasks such as your wake-up time, brushing teeth, bathing, breakfast, etc. This way, you don’t have to waste spoonfuls of energy in deciding when to wake up, whether to have tea or coffee or if you want to exercise — it’s all automated by your routine.
3. Prioritize and plan. Being aware of decision fatigue can help you plan your day in a way to ensure you make the most important decisions at the best possible times. Remember the study on judges? Researchers also found that the likelihood of judges granting parole increased after meal breaks. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has shared that he schedules his most important “high IQ” meetings between 10 a.m. and noon, and anything that comes in later in the afternoon is typically saved for the next day, Business Insider reported.
So ask yourself: When is your willpower at its peak, and when do you most often experience decision fatigue? Once you’ve identified the windows in which you’re most productive, plan your day in such a way that your most critical decisions are made during moments of peak focus and productivity, such as early in the day or immediately after a nutritious meal.
The key to overcoming decision fatigue is to take consistent and active measures to preserve your mental energy, even if, in the beginning, the steps feel small. After all, if it’s an important enough phenomenon to dictate the actions of billionaires, it’s important enough for you.